Reflection on Breakout Session 1: how can we best demonstrate excellence in practice research?

Victor Merriman writes:

The short answer is that the international academic standard for excellence – rigorous peer review – should be applied, and subject associations should be approached to test levels of interest in piloting PR peer review networks. This would have real advantages for the reliability of research assessment exercises, and benefits should accrue to those engaged in processes, outcomes, and – as appropriate – research outputs, also.

Drama and Dance (REF UoA 35) does not overtly rank journals or academic publishing houses for purposes of grading degrees of excellence, as is the case in some other disciplines. There is a peer group consensus that this is a good policy, enabling a broad range of work, and working circumstances, to be put forward for evaluation. It does also burden evaluation panels by requiring that they perform rigorous assessments of quality more or less ab initio, and inconsistencies in presenting PR outputs can, understandably generate systemic problems of evaluation, not least of consistency of judgement, and assessment narratives.

The problems appear to deepen where research underpinning Impact claims is under consideration, and chairs of sub-panels (Delgado) and main panel (Brown) have gone on record since the REF 2014 results were published, expressing frustration at the blurring of lines between Practice and Practice Research in outputs classified below the threshold required to support Impact claims.

Across performance sub-disciplines, the matter has attracted attention to the extent that in recent issues of Studies in Theatre and Performance (Routledge), a proposal to establish a section of that journal, ‘Curating Practice-as-Research’ (Hann and Ladron de Guevara, 35.1: 3-6, 2015(a)) led to ‘A General Call for PaR Contributions’(Hann and Ladron de Guevara, 35.2: 159-160, 2015 (b)).


This brings into focus the matter of how peer review might play out in practice, and how its processes might be, themselves, demonstrably rigorous and reliable.

Each discipline will have its own wisdom, practices and conventions which will be reflected in the ways in which this might be addressed. In the interests of furthering the discussion, I will outline an example of the nature and role of peer review in relation to a piece of Performance Practice Research, as follows:

Establishment of Peer Review Network: Subject associations – ideally in concert with HEFCE – would solicit interest in joining a peer-review network from Practice Researchers in a discipline. They would be selected on the basis of CV and statement of areas of expertise.

Identification of peer reviewers: A Researcher proposes a project, to be carried out over a specified period of time, notifies the network, which posts a call for peer reviewers, as appropriate (one PR researcher; one practising artist, for example).

Clarification of research context, and imperatives: Peer reviewers comment in blind review

Clarification of processes (to include research methods, documentation, and dissemination strategies): Peer reviewers comment in blind review

Engagement with process: Negotiable. Note that, depending on the nature of the work, this might make blind review impossible, and would require a more open, dialogical, process. It is not difficult to establish the rigour of such processes, as is the case for QAA panels conducting institutional audit, for example, and clear statements as to ensuring rigorous review would need to be made available.

Review of outcomes: Optional.

Review of outputs: Essential.

At the conclusion of the process, research processes and/or outputs which satisfy the conditions negotiated during peer review would be entered in an index of work done over a given period. This could be done by archiving what Hann and Ladron de Guevara (2015 (b): 159) refer to as a ‘curated portfolio’.

Once indexed, the quality of the work would be established, and, in the case of Impact claims, submitting institutions and evaluation panels could concentrate on establishing the case for impact, rather than revisiting possible problems around the status of the research.

One of the issues identified by Professor Bruce Brown, Chair, Main Panel D (REF2014) was the relatively low number of PR outputs submitted to the recent exercise (37%). He suggested that this might be because of a lack of confidence on the part of researchers, and, even more so, on the part of institutions, increasingly swayed by risk-averse research managers seeking to maximise institutional funding and reputation.

Perhaps the suggestions in this note will contribute to a debate by means of which the aspirations and practices of practice researchers and institutional interests come closer to each other.

Victor Merriman, Professor of Performing Arts, Edge Hill University         


Use of photograph courtesy of Edge Hill.

Works cited:

Rachel Hann and Victor Ladron de Guevara (2015(a)), ‘Addressing Practice: introducing a new section for STP (Studies in Theatre and Performance, 35.1: 3-6)

Rachel Hann and Victor Ladron de Guevara (2015(b)), ‘Curating Practice-as-Research – A General Call for PaR Contributions’(Studies in Theatre and Performance, 35.2: 159-160).

Rising to the challenge

I am delighted to be able to work with Goldsmiths to kick-start this hugely important conversation on the future of practice research in the UK. Practice makes a hugely vibrant and important contribution to our research base. Through its broad and impressive strengths, it contributes not only to the vitality of scholarship across all disciplines, but also to the wider publics, communities, societies and economies that engage with and benefit from the work of our universities.

We are, however, living in a time where practice research is being subjected to very real pressures. I want to outline three such pressures in this blog post, and offer some suggestions – or perhaps provocations – for how practice research can rise to the challenge of meeting these pressures head on and using them to shape a vital new vision for practice research in the UK.

The first challenge is the biggest: the pressure to demonstrate value for money. Research in all disciplines is operating in a context where continued success depends on competing for scarce resources. Governments, funders, universities and researchers would all agree that public investment in research should always aim to strike a balance between two needs – the need for intellectual pursuits to take place freely and openly, and the need for public funding to be spent wisely. While I don’t believe the balance has shifted greatly in recent years, I do think the tone of the public conversation has shifted towards viewing the wisest investments as those which generate a financial return.

I believe it is entirely within the gift of research communities, their representatives, their universities, funders and others to make a significant contribution to changing the tone of the conversation. Why is it okay for public money to be spent on undertaking research in new, untested, creative directions that may have no immediate positive impact on the public purse? Why is research in creative disciplines worth paying for? As a great believer in practice-based research, I have developed my own answers to these questions. But as your provocateur, I’d say that the practice research community needs to take all available opportunities to make the arguments for continued investment, and that a key part of this is that practice research must define for itself what excellent, valuable, impactful scholarship looks like.

The second challenge is one that might feel more real to many researchers: the pressure to align practice-based research with institutional strategies. This, too, is about money, but it is also about much more – it is about the structures, cultures, strategies and managerial approaches within universities. How should university structures and cultures adapt, and make space, to allow practice research to flourish on its own terms? How can practice researchers engage more with wider institutional imperatives and demands? As your provocateur, I’d say that university managers and practice researchers need to talk seriously about what needs to change to enable practice research to thrive. This blogsite, and the associated discussion list, can provide forums for these conversations to begin to take real shape – let’s use them.

The third challenge is perhaps the one that perhaps feels closest to the heart of practice research: the pressure to identify and engage with a wider research ‘standard’ or ‘definition’ that comes from practising in a university context. Perhaps some researchers feel that the common accepted notions of ‘research’ should not, or do not, apply to them. Perhaps the language and terminology that research managers, funders and governments use in discussions and documents is unfamiliar, inapplicable, or simply unrecognisable. Perhaps the processes of documenting, communicating and translating new knowledge and insight are simply less important in practice research. Or perhaps engaging with these wider academic standards and demands is damaging to practice itself, and if ‘being a better researcher’ means ‘being a worse practitioner’, then it’s just not worth it.

As your provocateur, I’d say that the practice research community urgently needs to sort these issues out. Practice is undoubtedly worthwhile in its own right, creating value and impact through aesthetic appreciation or practical application in myriad ways. But I think it’s wholly justified to expect all practice researchers to make a lasting contribution to the body of insight into, and knowledge about, the structures, meanings and values of practice, and to communicate that contribution effectively. How best to do this? Well, it might take time to reach a settled answer, but your universities and funders are listening. Let’s get cracking!

Ben Johnson is a research policy adviser at the Higher Education Funding Council for England. 

The Future of Practice Research: welcome back to the debate

 ‘The Future of Practice Research’ symposium at Goldsmiths, hosted in partnership with HEFCE on 4 June 2015, gave an opportunity for researchers, practitioners and research managers to explore new ways in which practice research is extending, and to influence broad agendas around assessment, funding and impact in a period of constant change.

To those who made it to the symposium, many thanks for all your contributions!  To those who didn’t, it was a full and fruitful day, and we decided to keep the conversation going with this blogsite. Building on all the vibrant work in our Practice Research community, we’re hoping this will lead to many new initiatives as well as provide a platform for debate and advocacy.

So do have a look at the materials attached inserted within a reminder of the programme for the day – currently you’ll find all the notes from the afternoon breakout sessions.  Our podcasts and slides will be added shortly.

Further ideas, reactions, provocations?  Let’s continue the conversation!


The Symposium

10:00 Welcome & IntroductionsPodcast to come

Pat Loughrey (Warden, Goldsmiths)
Ben Johnson (Research Policy Adviser, HEFCE)
Mark d’Inverno (Computing, Pro-Warden for Research and Enterprise, Goldsmiths)


10:15 Different Perspectives IPodcasts and slides to come

Talk 1. Anne Tallentire (Art, Central St Martins, University of the Arts London)

Talk 2. Steven Hill (Head of Research Policy, HEFCE) – Slides: Steven-Hill

Talk 3. Bruce Brown (Design, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research, University of Brighton)


11:15 Different Perspectives IIPodcasts and slides to come

Talk 4. Lauren Redhead (Music, Canterbury Christ Church University)

Talk 5. Stella Hall (Festival director and consultant)

Talk 6. Sally Mackey (Applied Theatre, Royal Central School of Speech and Drama) – Slides – Sally Mackey

Talk 7. Janet Hodgson (Centre for Fine Art Research, Birmingham City University) and Helen Wickstead (Art/Archaeology, Kingston University)


12.15   Q&A Panel chaired by Andrea Phillips (Art, Goldsmiths) – Podcast to come

13:45   Breakout Session I: Present and Future

Where is Practice Research now and how might it develop in innovative ways over the next decade?

How can we best demonstrate excellence in Practice Research?

How should we peer review Practice Research?

How might we develop common languages and approaches across disciplines?

Breakout Session I: Present and Future – All groups

15:00    Breakout Session II: The Environment

How does Practice Research relate to the professional world, and how might we enhance such relationships?

How can we best support and nurture Practice Research within higher education?

What are the strongest ways to demonstrate the public impact of Practice Research?

How might we reassert the importance of Practice Research, both within the academy and to a wider world?

Breakout Session II: The Environment – All groups